Sunday, February 13, 2005

Labour not muckraking

Nick Cohen's piece in the Observer (Via Tim Worstall) raises lots of interesting questions about Michael Howard's time in the Home Office and is well worth a read. Cohen points out that for people to use applications under the Freedom of Information Act to gather information to support their political case is not muckraking: it is the whole point of the act. This includes gathering information that seeks to show that ones political opponents are incompetent, dishonest or liars. In this he is undoubtedly correct, and even the emasculated FOI that has been passed into law will shine enough light into the corridors of power to lead eventually to better government.

Cohen goes on:

the British may not be ready for American-style freedom of information; may not yet have understood how a raucous democracy works.

That may or may not be true, but in a raucous democracy, the public need to look carefully at the decisions taken in the light of the way government works. Otherwise we end up with a lot of shouting and little enlightenment. In this case it is impossible to judge whether, as Cohen concludes, Howard was guilty of a "misjudgement" and a "monumental blunder" without knowing the advice he received from officials and the police. If he overruled his civil servants then the case against him would be damning indeed. But if he acted in accordance with advice given, then to accuse him of blundering is to go too far, for all that innocents suffered as the result of the decision. To call it a misjudgement is to suggest that ministers should not trust the advice of their civil servants and the police. And that is the way to make the FOI a recipe for worse rather than better government.